INI + AMEN.
We aren’t just an isolated little group of people here. We are part of God’s people who’ve lived through the centuries and all over the world. Within this company of Christ’s people we have our place and identity. Around the world today millions of Christians are remembering, as they’ve done for centuries, that today is six months before Christmas Eve and the birth of our Savior. That means we are also remembering the birth of John the Baptist, our brother in this company of God’s people where he also has his place, identity, and task.
Two boys are born at the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, one born six months before the other, and they grew up in opposite parts of the land: Mary’s son up north in Galilee and Elizabeth’s in the hill country of Judea. One grew up in the home of a carpenter, the other in the home of a priest.
The hill country and wilderness of Judea saw John become a man. Like Elijah before him in the wilderness, John knew the winds and storms and quaking of the earth. John’s still, small voice was his parents telling him about the work he was going to do, his place in God’s dealing with His people. We’re not told about John’s long years of training and getting ready for this task, but John’s father, Zechariah, had sung of God’s dealing with Israel, of the promises to Abraham and David, the promise of salvation for the whole world. So John wasn’t a young man without an identity. He knew he was part of God’s people and had his part to play. Then, when the time came for John to do what he was born to do, he burst suddenly on the scene—a startling figure with hair and clothes that showed what he was all about. John had the camel’s hair and leather belt of a prophet, of an Elijah. The Word of the Lord appeared to John, the Son of Zechariah, in the wilderness, and he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As Luke tells us:
[John] said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison.
Sudden and dramatic—then John’s life was all over. Prison and execution. John’s head cut off at the request of a strip dancer, daughter of a marriage-breaking mother, and by a half-drunk princeling. In prison, John wondered if it was all a mistake. But he didn’t complain about where his life ended up. No, he wanted an answer from the only place, the only Person, where one could be found. John sent to Jesus: “Are you for real? Are you the one?”
Jesus didn’t say anything John didn’t already know. There was no special word, experience, or demonstration. All Jesus said was, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are resurrected, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Being “offended by [Jesus]”—John’s final temptation. Jesus was doing His work His way, and that didn’t fit with John’s thinking. John preached harshly against sin, and Jesus hung out with sinners. The crowds flocked to John, and then to Jesus. So, John was faced with the question: Jesus’ way or my way? He’d already confessed, “[Jesus] must increase; I must decrease.” Now John was faced with living it out. He answers again with his life. He lays his head on the block, and with his death confesses: “Yes, you’re the one. Your way, not mine.”
We see in John how Christ’s people lay their lives on the line. We see how we must decrease and Jesus must increase, even to self-destroying love for those around us. Love that puts their needs first. Love that puts their forgiveness first. Love that is merciful and kind beyond all measure. The Love of Jesus for us. The Love of Jesus through us. And in John, we see a faith that holds firm to Jesus even through death, a sort of faith that’s Christ’s own gift.
If we use the lives of the saints only as examples, we end in discouragement. The comparison crushes us. “What’s the hope for a simple Christian like me?” John is most for us when he’s pointing to Jesus, his message of repentance and forgiveness. Follow John’s hand and words, words which sing again today, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Your sin and mine, all our failures, our doubting God’s plans and promises, our insisting on our own way instead of His, of our increasing and His decreasing.
Jesus answers for all this, the Lamb slain for your forgiveness, so that you are baptized into God’s people. Jesus hangs out with you and me, and within us He would increase and with us do His work in the world. Forgiveness, salvation, and life—all shaped and shining with His love, even in prison and on your deathbed.
So we thank God for John. We thank God for everyone who’s thanking and praising God today with us, here and all over the world. We’re also thankful for each other, and through it all we’re giving thanks to Jesus. He’s joined us to Himself and to each other with a love that holds through death itself. We’ll celebrate His birth, God willing, six months from now. John prepared His way, and John still serves us today, pointing us to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” His body given and blood shed for you.
INI + AMEN.